When I first started playing pickleball, I struggled.
I didn’t know the rules, I didn’t understand the mechanics, and I had ZERO background with racket sports. All I wanted to do was to hit the ball hard and to beat my friends. I accomplished neither of those goals.
I lost the majority of games for about 6 months. This is when I broke down and took a different approach; one of learning. I went to clinics, took lessons, and asked a lot of questions. Now I’m a certified instructor for the International Pickleball Teaching Professional Association (IPTPA) and paying it forward through High Five.
Looking back, there are a lot of things I wish I did differently. Today, I’ll share 5 things I wish I knew before I started playing pickleball. These are 5 skills that every player needs to know if they’re going to advance in the game. It’s my hope that this can help you avoid some of the mistakes I made and help you improve without any wasted time.
1. Starting from the baseline with hard shots creates a difficult learning curve.
When I started, I began from the outside in. I started from the baseline and hit every shot hard. However, the advanced play happens in the non-volley zone and to compete you have to hit soft shots. To go from hard shots to soft shots created a difficult learning curve. By starting at the non-volley zone and learning soft shots first, it will make a much easier journey of learning and progression.
Because I created bad muscle memory, I had to un-learn many bad habits. Also, without any background in racket sports, I had blind spots in these areas:
- Grip Pressure – soft shots require soft hands
- Footwork – feet first, swing second and use the split step anytime you see your opponent touch the ball.
- Swing – swing from LOW to HIGH, no big backswing or jerky motions.
- Ready position – paddle UP
2. The team that controls the net controls the game.
The majority of games are won at the non-volley zone or the kitchen because the team that controls the net controls the game. When you control the kitchen, there are many more shots that you can take at a downward trajectory toward your opponents.
However, there are a few common mistakes that I made that kept me from controlling the net:
- Inconsistent Dinks – You have to respect the net and give yourself margin for error when you’re dinking. You also have to pay attention to your grip pressure.
- Stepping Away from the Nonvolley Zone – If you retreat, you’re dead meat. Retreating from the non-volley zone provides more places for your opponent to hit the ball at your feet. This also creates more steps between you and the net.
- Not Using a Volley Dink – The volley dink is a defensive dink that takes away time from your opponent.
- Dinking without a Purpose – Do you ever dink the ball directly to your opponent? When you dink, make them think. Use ADW – angles, depth, and weakness – to dink with a purpose and to keep your opponent moving.
3. The long dink or the third shot drop is essential.
The third shot drop or the long dink is an essential part of pickleball for a few reasons:
- It neutralizes your opponent’s defense. This means you hit a shot that they cannot hit out of the air or attack. When a third shot drop bounces in the kitchen, it is much harder to hit that ball at a downward trajectory.
- It gives you the chance to run from the baseline to the kitchen line where you have more opportunities to control the net. Control the net and you can control the game, effectively creating opportunities to attack the ball.
- It can set up a “fiver.” If hit well enough, it can bounce off your opponent’s paddle high and set up a 5th shot put-away.
4. The team that commits the least amount of unforced errors will win the majority of the time.
An unforced error is the loss of a point or rally due to your mistake, not your opponent’s skill. How can you avoid unforced errors in the kitchen and know how to hit the ball at the right time?
Consider using the traffic light framework. This is a tool to help you think faster and make decisions quickly. Many errors in pickleball begin in the brain due to lack of reaction time or indecision. Therefore, by using this tool, your brain can decide the correct course of action faster, commit fewer unforced errors, and win more rallies.
5. Outlasting your opponent unlocks victory.
If you are playing someone who is equal to your skill level, you can win by outlasting your opponent. What does this mean?
- You are patient
- You are intentional with your shots
- You commit the fewest unforced errors
- You choose consistency over intensity with your shots
Skill and physical ability can only get you so far. Eventually you get to a place where strategy becomes 80% of your game.
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If you’re interested in digging into more concepts and applying them to skills, check out The Path to Better Pickleball, a free 30-day challenge that is designed to help you improve your game quickly. It’s completely free and includes a skills guide, 10 videos, and it’s all sent straight to your inbox.
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